Melbourne Festival Haydn for Everyone Series: Attacca Quartet

Heather Leviston

This year the sunset series of chamber music concerts makes a welcome return to the Melbourne Festival.
Melbourne Festival Haydn for Everyone Series: Attacca Quartet

Also making a welcome return is Attacca Quartet, prize winners at the 2011 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition.

It is particularly fitting that they should play the opening concerts of the three-year ‘Haydn for Everyone’ series of programs, curated by Richard Tognetti and Michael Stevens. The quartet’s 2013 – 2014 season marks the fourth installment of ‘The 68’, an ambitious project in which they are performing all of Haydn’s quartets in a special series in New York. The daunting nature of such a project indicates the quartet’s devotion to Haydn’s music and the depth of understanding that they bring to the performance of his quartets.

Juxtaposed against diverse works from the string quartet repertoire, one quartet by the father of the genre is featured in all ten of the sunset concerts given by five notable national and international quartets. Of the four concerts performed by Attacca Quartet, Wednesday evening included the most diverse range of music in their programs. Happily, one of these inclusions was by an Australian composer Matthew Hindson; less happily, this was one of the few Australian works to be performed in the sunset series.

Collins Street Baptist Church has a clear acoustic and an uplifting ambience. Unfortunately, that clear acoustic has to contend with the creaking of the pews when anybody moves. Pärt’s Fratres is a slow moving set of variations on a theme that depends on the blending of whispered, ethereal harmonics. The liturgical, meditative atmosphere is established at the beginning and is easily broken. Nevertheless, such is the skill and concentration of the players that their evocative account of this mesmerizing work made a powerful impact despite the odd interruption. A resonant cello, tuned down lower strings of the first violin and viola, and the continuous soft thread of grief from Keiko Tokunaga’s second violin with its sustained drone confirmed just how poignant Pärt’s composition can be in this instrumentation.

With violin and viola re-tuned, Britten’s ‘Three Divertmenti’ received a spirited treatment. From the spiky ‘march’, employing the kind of attack that one would expect from a quartet with the name Attacca, to the gentle, humorous ‘waltz’ and the final dazzling ‘burlesque’, unflagging energy and supreme coordination marked their playing.

The Razor is played less often than Haydn’s other named quartets, which publishers sought to promote by giving them catchy nicknames. Apparently, this title was the result of a publisher coming upon Haydn as he was shaving. In frustration Haydn said that he would exchange his best quartet for a decent razor. Although Luke Fleming’s viola continued to object to having had its tuning tampered with for the Pärt, the quartet gave an eloquent reading of this work. The unusual slow first movement featured Schroeder’s silvery tone with Andrew Yee’s rich cello, Keiko Tokunaga’s violin and Fleming’s viola strong presences. These young players also captured the grace and humour integral to much of the quartet beautifully. Their strong sense of ensemble throughout made for very satisfying listening.

Reversing the order of the program so that Hindson’s quartet concluded the program worked well. This is a fascinating work, full of special effects that reflect his connection to his contemporary environment. In this case, the rhythms and colours of machines are seen in contrast with some of the quieter, more serene beauty of a distant industrial landscape at night. The way Hindson’s musical imagination has distilled these impressions has resulted in an exciting string quartet. It also makes a great showcase for the musical talents of a topnotch quartet. It is little wonder that Attacca Quartet has this as an ongoing part of their repertoire, playing it all around the world. Almost machine-like stamina is needed from the players as they depict the pulsating, grinding action of modern industry. Although Hindson remarked after the concert that he had never heard the beginning played so fast, there was no sense of uncontrolled rushing, just relentless forward momentum. A lovely cello solo from Andrew Yee and quiet passages from the other instruments acted as a kind of eye in the storm until the glissandi and driving rhythms took over once again, culminating in a final upward flourish. Such a splendid performance demonstrated that this is a work that deserves to be shared with a wide audience.

Hosted by Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Attacca Quartet and Matthew Hindson contributed to an illuminating post-concert discussion on The Art of the String Quartet. As Managing Director of London’s Barbican Centre, he is a man of enormous knowledge and experience who knows exactly what questions to ask. This, coupled with a genial personality, enabled the highly articulate composer and members of the quartet to speak about their work in gratifying detail. His future appearances at the Festival are not to be missed.

Arvo Pärt: Fratres

Benjamin Britten: Three Divertimenti

Matthew Hindson: Quartet No. 1, Industrial Night Music

Joseph Haydn: Quartet in F minor, Op. 55, No. 2, The Razor


Rating: 4 stars

Melbourne Festival Haydn for Everyone Series

Quartets at Sunset 3: Attacca Quartet

Collins Street Baptist Church

Wednesday 16 October

Image: Melbourne Festival Official Site

About the author

Heather Leviston is a Melbourne-based reviewer.